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West Sussex County Council (21 003 029)

Category : Children's care services > Child protection

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 06 Jan 2022

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr X complained about the Council’s involvement with him and his three children, all of whom are subject to a child protection plan. He said the Council has treated him unfairly and this has caused him stress and upset. There was fault in the Council’s actions when it failed to properly assess Mr D’s friend Ms W prior to approving her as a carer for Mr D’s children. This caused stress and inconvenience to Mr X. The Council has carried out a review of its guidance to ensure this does not happen again in future. This is a suitable remedy to address any injustice Mr X experienced.

The complaint

  1. Mr X complained about the Council’s involvement with his three small children.
  2. He said the Council:
      1. wrongly referred to him as a heavy drinker and perpetrator of domestic violence;
      2. removed a social worker from working with him due to false allegations that Mr X is racist;
      3. incorrectly kept his children subject to a child protection plan;
      4. approved of a family friend, Ms W caring for Mr X’s children without properly checking whether she was suitable for this role;
      5. failed to ensure he received home visits every 10 working days as set out in the child protection plans;
      6. delayed responding to his complaint;
      7. failed to provide him with paperwork needed to conduct a child protection conference;
      8. did not provide voice recordings and paperwork he requested; and
      9. listened to recordings taken of him by Ms D without his consent.
  3. He said the Council’s actions have caused him and his family distress.

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What I have investigated

  1. I have investigated complaint points a) to e). I have not investigated Mr X’s complaint points f) to i). I have explained why I have not investigated these points at paragraph 35.

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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 normally expect someone to refer the matter to the Information Commissioner if they have a complaint about data protection. However, we may decide to investigate if we think there are good reasons. (Local Government Act 1974, section 24A(6), as amended)
  3. 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. I made enquiries of the Council and considered the information it provided. This included its chronology of the contact Mr X has made with it, complaint correspondence, the child protection plans for each child and the Council’s case notes.
  2. I wrote to the Council and Mr X with the draft decision and gave both the opportunity to provide their comments. I considered the comments made by the Council prior to writing the final decision.

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What I found

Law

  1. The Children Act 1989 says the child’s needs and welfare are paramount and the needs and wishes of the child should be put first. This is so the child receives the support they need before a problem escalates. Safeguarding children is everyone’s responsibility.
  2. Councils have a duty to make enquiries where a child is considered to be suffering or likely to suffer significant harm (the term used in the Act). The enquiries must establish the child’s situation and to determine whether protective action is required (S.47 Children Act 1989). Significant harm covers the risk of physical, sexual, emotional abuse or neglect.
  3. Where initial assessment shows a child is suffering or is likely to suffer significant harm, the council and the police hold a strategy discussion. The purpose of a strategy discussion is to decide immediate safeguarding actions. A strategy meeting may also include other professionals involved with the child.
  4. Where emergency action is not needed the Council will meet with the family and agree plans to safeguard the child’s welfare. The child may be considered a child in need and safeguarding activity stopped. If the child is in need the council should consider what services are needed.

Child in need

  1. A child in need is defined in law as a child aged under 18 who requires either:
    • local authority services to achieve or maintain a reasonable standard of health or development; or
    • need local authority services to prevent significant or further harm to health & development

Child Protection Plan

  1. A Child Protection Plan is a plan drawn up by the Council. It sets out how the child can be kept safe and what support they will need.

Child Protection Conference

  1. The purpose of a child protection conference is for the Council (along with all professionals working with the family) to share information and determine what needs to be done to ensure the child or children are kept safe. This could mean drawing up a child protection plan for the child or children.

Background

  1. Mr X and his ex-wife, Ms D share three children. The family has been known to the Council since 2018 due to safeguarding concerns raised by Mr X’s eldest child.
  2. On 3 March 2020, the Council held a strategy meeting to discuss concerns that Mr X and Ms D were not meeting the needs of their children. The Council decided the threshold for significant harm had been met and all three children were made subject to child protection plans (CPP). The plans stated the family should receive child protection visits every 10 working days.

Mr X’s complaint

  1. In early 2020, Mr X contacted the Council to explain his friend Ms W would be moving into the property he shared with Ms D to help care for the children.
  2. The Council contacted the Police to perform a background check on Ms W. However, several months later the Council received information indicating Ms W was not fit to care for the children and Ms W had to leave the property. The Council has clarified it did not tell Ms W to leave.
  3. Mr X complained to the Council in October 2020. He said:
      1. the Council had wrongly referred to him as a heavy drinker and abusive in official reports;
      2. the Council removed a social worker from working with Mr X and his family due to false claims that Mr X held racist views; and
      3. the Council approved Ms W as a carer for the children without performing proper checks.
  4. Mr X and the Council met in December 2020 to discuss Mr X’s concerns. The Council also discussed the matter with Mr X on the phone. The Council says they concluded the conversation when Mr X said he was satisfied the Council had addressed his complaint. The Council issued a formal complaint response summarising the conversation a few days later.
  5. The Council said:
      1. it had received allegations of abuse from Ms D against Mr X and some of the comments made by the children supported these allegations. The Council was unable to remove this information from its records but invited Mr X to provide information he felt supported his position;
      2. it had received allegations from Ms D and the children that Mr X was drinking alcohol but it had not seen or received evidence of this and did not consider this to be a safeguarding issue;
      3. Ms D had provided the Council with recordings in which Mr X made racist and abusive comments towards the social worker, which prompted the Council to remove him from working with the family; and
      4. The Council’s initial checks did not reveal that Ms W was unsuitable to work with the children however, further checks showed the Council should have made further enquiries about Ms W.
  6. Mr X escalated his complaint to Stage 2 in late December 2020. He reiterated his complaint points and said he had not received a home visit for over 25 days. He also said a child protection advisor informed him the children were to be kept on a CPP for a further three months. He said these decisions should have been made by professionals at the child protection conference rather than the advisor.
  7. The Council responded to Mr X’s complaint at Stage 2 in February 2021. The Council explained the decision to keep the children on a CPP for a further three months was made during a child protection conference. It also said Mr X had received four home visits between 27 November 2020 and 8 January 2021, which was in line with the terms set out in the CPP.
  8. The Council concluded the letter saying it would hold a review to address its failure to properly assess Ms W and referred Mr X to the Ombudsman if he remained unhappy.
  9. In response to the Ombudsman’s enquiries, the Council has provided case notes and details of the contact it has had with Mr X. In response to Mr X’s complaint the Council investigated the issue and found the new social worker was not completing visits within the required timescales. The Council confirmed that three home visits were carried out within 11 working days rather than 10. The Council states it has addressed the matter with the social worker and this has not happened again.

Findings

  1. Mr X has complained the Council unfairly described him as abusive and misusing alcohol in official documents. I have reviewed all correspondence between Mr X and the Council, along with the child protection plans for all three children and the case notes detailing contact Mr X has made with the Council. Whilst I can see references have been made to allegations of abuse made by Ms D and Mr X’s children, I have not seen evidence of the Council itself referring to Mr X using these terms. I can also see the Council has noted Mr X’s consistent denial of these allegations. The Council has a duty to properly record allegations of abuse made by either party. I cannot see that the Council has acted improperly. There is no fault in the Council’s actions.
  2. Mr X has complained the Council removed a social worker from working with his family because he expressed racist and violent views aimed at this worker. The Council has a duty of care, not just towards the families in its jurisdiction but also towards its staff. The Council has provided details of the comments Mr X made. Considering the racist and abusive nature of the comments, the Council decided to allocate a new social worker to Mr X and his family. The Ombudsman cannot fault the merits of a decision the Council has correctly made. The Council has acted in the manner I would expect. There is no fault in the Council’s actions.
  3. Mr X complained the Council did not follow the correct process in deciding to keep the children on a CPP for a further three months. The Council has confirmed that the decision was made by a multi-agency panel of professionals at a child protection conference. Whilst I agree Mr X was not informed appropriately of the decision to extend the terms of the CPP, I cannot see any fault in the process used to arrive at this decision. There is no fault in the Council’s actions.
  4. Mr X complained the Council failed to carry out thorough checks prior to approving Ms W as a carer for the children. The Council has conceded it received information from a third party several months after Ms W had been caring for the children which showed it should have carried out further checks. This is fault. I can imagine this caused Mr X and Ms W distress and inconvenience. The Council has confirmed it has held a review and intends to address its failure to properly assess Ms W by updating its guidance to ensure this does not happen in future. I consider this a satisfactory remedy to address this complaint point.
  5. Mr X complained he did not receive home visits in line with the requirements of the child protection plan. The Council has conceded the new social worker it appointed to work with Mr X and his family carried out home visits every 11 working days instead of 10. Whilst this is not ideal, I stop short of calling this fault. Even if I were to consider this fault, I have not seen evidence that this caused Mr X or the children a significant injustice.

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Final decision

  1. There was fault in the Council’s actions when it failed to carry out proper checks before approving Mr X’s friend to care for his children. The Council has carried out a review of its guidance to ensure this does not happen again in future. This is a suitable remedy to address any injustice Mr X experienced. I have completed the investigation.

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Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate

  1. I have not investigated complaint points f) to g) as the Council has previously investigated and addressed them. I can see nothing further the Ombudsman could add to the Council’s investigation. I have not investigated complaint points h) to i) as they relate to data protection issues, which are outside of the Ombudsman’s remit. It is up to Mr X to refer these complaints to the information commissioner’s office if he remains unhappy these aspects of the complaint.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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