Decision : Upheld
Decision date : 31 Mar 2022
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr X complained about the Council’s management of a child protection investigation involving his son. We find fault with the Council. The Council will apologise, implement service improvements, and pay him £200 for his distress.
- Failed to provide timely and accurate information to him about the reasons for the investigation.
- Delayed the process due to the social worker’s availability.
- Failed to keep accurate records of meetings and complete an inspection properly.
- Included inaccurate and biased information in the child and family assessment report and failed to include important information from him and his family.
- Disrupted a Child Arrangement Order by saying he could not have contact with C.
- Mr X also complains about unprofessional conduct by the social worker.
- Mr X says he experienced psychological distress and was only allowed supervised contact with his son.
What I investigated
- I investigated the complaints in paragraph one. My reason for not investigating complaint in paragraph two is at the end of this statement.
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 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)
- 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.
How I considered this complaint
- I spoke to Mr X and considered the information he provided with his complaint. I made enquiries with the Council and considered its response along with relevant law, guidance and policy.
- Mr X and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I carefully considered all the comments I received.
What I found
- The Children Act 1989 (the Act) requires local authorities to investigate if there is reasonable cause to suspect a child in their area is suffering or likely to suffer significant harm. They must decide whether to take action to safeguard or promote the child’s welfare. (Children Act 1989, section 47)
- Anyone who has concerns about a child’s welfare should make a referral to children’s social care and should do so immediately if there is a concern 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 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 (which the Council calls ‘a child and family assessment’); 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 of the Act supports concerns and the child may remain at risk of significant harm the social worker will arrange an initial child protection conference (ICPC). The ICPC decides what action is needed to safeguard the child. This might include making the child a ‘child in need’ (CIN) and implementing a safety plan.
- If, following a referral and an assessment by a social worker, a multi-agency strategy meeting decides the concerns are substantiated and the child is likely to suffer significant harm, the council convenes a Child Protection Conference.
- The Child Protection Conference decides what action is needed to safeguard the child. This may include a recommendation that the child should be supported by a Child Protection Plan.
- After the Initial Child Protection Conference, there will be one or more Review Child Protection Conferences to consider progress on action taken to safeguard the child and whether the Child Protection Plan should be maintained, amended, or discontinued.
- “Working Together to Safeguard Children (2018)" is government guidance. It says the assessment should be child-centered, focusing on the action and outcomes for children and hearing their voice, where appropriate. It should involve the family and identify strengths and protective factors as well as risks to the safety and welfare of the children.
- “Working Together to Safeguard Children (2018)" goes on to say:
- social workers should lead assessments and carry out enquiries in a way which minimises distress for the child and family. The social worker may interview the child’s parents and gather information about the child and their family history to determine the level of risk the child is likely to face if they remain in their environment.
- Assessments should take no longer than 45 days from the date of the referral.
- Mr X and his ex-partner (Ms B) have a Child Arrangement Order sharing time with C. On 17 August 2020, C returned from a stay with Mr X. Ms B noticed an injury to C’s hand and took him to hospital. Council records state doctors noted no fracture, and C could move his fingers normally.
- On 27 August, Ms B referred C to children’s social care stating Mr X had deliberately injured C. Ms B also alleged historic incidents of domestic abuse towards her by Mr X.
- On 28 August, there was a strategy meeting. Officers decided the concerns Ms B raised did not meet the threshold for a Section 47 enquiry. The outcome of the meeting was a social worker needed to start a child and family assessment to gather further information from C and others involved in his care.
- As C was staying with Mr X, officers decided to take no action until C returned to stay with Ms B. A social worker (SW) was allocated to lead the assessment and the case notes indicate C was not deemed to be at immediate risk of harm.
- On 15 September, the SW had an introductory online meeting with Ms B and C. The SW told C she would meet him at school the following week. On 22 September, the SW visited C at school. Her record of the meeting states C made a ‘clear disclosure of his father deliberately harming him’.
- On 24 September, a multi-agency strategy meeting decided to proceed with a Section 47 enquiry. The recommendation was Mr X did not have unsupervised contact with C until the child and family assessment was completed. The Police also wanted to interview Mr X about the allegations. At the meeting, the SW explained there was a delay in undertaking direct work with C as she had been isolating due to COVID-19.
- On 24 September, the SW left Mr X a voicemail requesting a call back so she could update him. Mr X told me he rang the SW repeatedly, but it kept going through to her voicemail. He told me he phoned children’s social care to try and get hold of the SW. The Council case notes show another officer tried to speak with Mr X, but the call disconnected.
- Mr X eventually spoke with the SW who advised him not to collect C from school. He told me the SW provided him with little information other than he would need to attend for a police interview on 29 September.
- Mr X says he contacted the Police who said they could have interviewed him the following day, but the SW had arranged the interview for 29 September. Mr X says he later discovered this was because the SW did not work on Fridays. He told me that the SW’s leave was just before the investigation period. He also said the SW took some days off for training during the assessment but had emailed him about it after the event.
- The Police and the SW interviewed Mr X as arranged. The records noted he was upset at the allegation, denied injuring C, but could not explain how the injury happened. Mr X received ‘words of advice’ (informal advice with no criminal implications) from the Police who took no further action.
- On 1 October, the SW visited Mr X and his partner. Mr X said the SW gave him information leaflets about the enquiry and answered his questions. He complained the SW accused him of hurting C and said she couldn’t help him unless he admitted this. The SW’s record of this meeting does not reflect Mr X’s account, but she recorded his responses and reactions to the allegation.
- On 3 October, the SW emailed Mr X telling him supervised contact was only a recommendation. And if he or Ms B wanted to vary the Child Arrangement Order, either of them could go to court.
- On 6 October, the Section 47 enquiry ended. Concerns about C’s safety were substantiated but he was not at continued risk of significant harm. The Police enquiries had also not established any findings against Mr X in relation to the domestic abuse allegations. The outcome was C’s case would be managed through a period of Child in Need planning.
- As part of the assessment process, the SW had significant email contact with Mr X, Ms B and Mr X’s sister (Ms Y). Mr X provided copies of these emails which I considered. In October, Ms Y emailed the SW with examples of Ms B being dishonest, exaggerating matters or acting in her own best interests. Mr X also emailed the SW saying she did not consider information he and Ms Y provided. Mr X provided me with copies of the emails between his sister and the SW. This shows Ms Y emailed the information to the SW on 28 October as requested. He also asked why the SW’s account of the allegation had changed. The SW responded to each of Mr X’s concerns but not to his satisfaction.
- On 3 November, the SW completed the child and family assessment. It presented both Mr X and Ms B as devoted parents. The SW included background information about Ms B’s allegations of domestic abuse towards her and the potential impact on C.
- The report also included Mr X’s view that Ms B often exaggerated and falsified information. The SW stated she had found no evidence to support Mr X’s views. The report did not mention a check of C’s bedroom at Mr X’s home and mentioned Mr X was seeking help for anxiety and depression.
- On 3 November, the SW’s manager recommended a further short period of Child in Need planning to enable contact between Mr X and C and ensure C received emotional support and counselling.
- On 17 December, there was a Child in Need review meeting. Professionals noted both parents had engaged well with the service and C was better supported at home. So, there was no need for further input from children’s social care and the case would close.
Mr X complained to the Council at the end of January 2021. I summarise the Council’s first response below:
- It was sorry if the SW’s planned leave and part-time working pattern hindered his contact, the department could have arranged for another colleague to attend to Mr X.
- It could not give him detailed reasons for the enquiry immediately because the SW needed to speak to C alone when he was not staying at Mr X’s house. There was also an unavoidable delay because the SW was isolating.
- C gave a consistent account of how the injuries had happened which is reflected in the case records.
- The SW did not look at C’s bedroom. This should have happened and would be noted for future learning.
- Mr X’s sister had provided detailed concerns about C, to the SW but these were not received in time to be included in the report.
- The report included views from both parents and C, noted Mr X denied the allegations of domestic abuse and stated there was no police record supporting Ms B. Decisions and planning did not consider Ms B’s allegations of domestic abuse.
- The SW’s record keeping may not have reflected all face-to face meetings and or telephone discussions with Mr X. The SW had taken handwritten notes for some contact which were destroyed before she left the Council.
- It could not change the assessment, but supplementary information from him was on C’s case records. C could access these later, if he chose to and view all the information including matters disputed by Mr X.
- There was some missing and misinformed information in the assessment, but this would not have affected the outcome.
Was there fault causing injustice?
- When considering complaints about safeguarding, we are not an appeal body. We cannot question the merits of decisions. Our focus is on whether the Council followed relevant law and guidance. An investigation will inevitably be distressing for any parent.
(i)The Council failed to provide timely and adequate information about the reasons for the investigation
- The Council’s reasons for limiting information it provided to Mr X were appropriate and I find no fault. I consider the Council followed its processes to complete enquiries with Ms B and C first. However, there was a slight delay due to difficulties in meeting Ms B and because C was staying with Mr X. This was followed by the SW needing to isolate. This delay was not fault and was unavoidable.
- The evidence indicates the SW tried to inform Mr X but contact was not made despite attempts by both parties and by the SW’s colleagues. There is no evidence of any deliberate failure to advise Mr X.
- I understand the allegations would have caused Mr X distress and anxiety. However, I find no fault in the Council’s handling of the disclosure, or the detail provided at the stage of the investigation.
- The Council has 45 days to complete the child and family assessment from the referral date, which was made on 27 August 2020. The assessment was completed on 3 November. This was a delay of three days which is not significant enough to be fault. The Council also explained that this was in the context of a case which required additional strategy meetings and was during the Covid-19 pandemic.
- Mr X considers the SW’s working and leave arrangements adversely affected the timing of the investigation. The SW’s annual leave was before the enquiry commenced so this absence would not have affected the process.
- The SW did not work on a Friday and so the interview with the police, which the SW also needed to attend, could not take place for five days. I accept Mr X experienced an anxious wait over the weekend to find out why he could not have contact with his son and there was nothing done to alleviate his concerns.
- The SW could not prejudice the interview by giving Mr X any details about the allegations. However, she could have explained that she had arranged the interview to take place on the next working day for her. The SW could also have alerted her manager, so a different colleague could be assigned as accepted by the Council. Similarly, Mr X states the SW failed to inform him of when she would be away on training. These instances of poor communication were fault which caused Mr X avoidable distress and inconvenience.
(iii)The social worker failed to keep accurate records of meetings and complete an inspection
- The Council admitted it should have inspected C’s bedroom and the failure to do so was fault as this was not in line with its procedures.
- The Council stated in its second complaint response that the case records do not reflect all meetings and telephone calls with Mr X and the SW had kept handwritten notes of some meetings which had been destroyed. Mr X says there were meetings and other telephone calls with him which have not been recorded. The Council has apologised for this.
- Keeping full records of actions on a case is a vital requirement of the enquiry process. It ensures the integrity of information so those involved feel confident their views and experiences have been clearly recorded. This was not done in Mr X’s case, so it is not possible to say what happened in those meetings or during those telephone calls. This was fault which the Council has accepted. It caused Mr X frustration and anxiety.
(iv)The assessment report was biased, included inaccurate information about Mr X and failed to include his views and those of other family members
- My view is there is no evidence of bias in the report. It considered and recorded the actions and views of both parents and included relevant information from other agencies. I consider the report was in line with the Working Together to Safeguard Children guidance summarised in paragraphs 19 and 20.
- Mr X says both he and his sister provided the SW with information about their concerns about C, and Ms B’s behaviour. Mrs X believes his information was not given sufficient weight and his offer of evidence to disprove the allegation was not followed up by the SW.
- Mr X also believes his sister’s information was incorrectly recorded as not offered in the final report. The Council stated that Ms Y’s information was not received in time. However, Mr X provided copies of the emails between his sister and the SW. This shows Ms Y emailed the information on 28 October 2020 which was a few days before the final report was issued.
- It is not for us to say what information goes in an assessment report, what weight to give different information or to decide on how much information is needed before reaching conclusions. These are all matters for the Council. I see no fault in the way the SW assessed this information during the investigation.
- Another issue for me to consider is whether the Council acted with fault when it included Ms B’s comments about Mr X perpetrating domestic abuse. The records indicate police checks took place and there was no evidence to support the allegations. The Council stated in its complaint response that Mr X had properly refuted these allegations. I therefore appreciate Mr X’s frustration that this information was included in the final assessment. It would have caused Mr X distress to see this information despite his efforts to address it during the investigation.
- Mr X has a right to rectification under Article 16 of the GDPR which means he may ask the Council to amend any factual errors. The Council has addressed this by allowing Mr X to submit supplementary information and additional documents to the case file to ensure a clear record is kept of his views. My view is that the Council’s actions and offer are an appropriate response to Mr X’s concerns and remedy any injustice.
(v)The assessment process disrupted a Child Arrangement Order as he could not have contact with C.
- I do not find fault with the Council for carrying out a child and family assessment because it needed to assess the allegations and decide whether to take action to safeguard C under its powers and duties under the Children Act 1989. There was no fault in this process which may cause disruption to agreed contact arrangements.
- Mr X says he was not permitted unsupervised contact with his son during the assessment period. The records indicate both parents were informed this was advisory, and they could return to court if they wanted to vary the Child Arrangement Order. I consider the SW gave Mr X appropriate information about his rights and so there was no fault.
- The Council has agreed that, within one month of the final decision it will:
- Apologise to Mr X for the fault identified in the last section and for his avoidable distress.
- Remind social workers in children’s social care to keep written records of all meetings and phone calls.
- Add a further note to C’s case record to confirm the Police had no record of any previous domestic abuse allegations.
- Pay Mr X £200 to acknowledge the distress he experienced as a result of the Council’s faults.
Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate
The allocated social worker’s personal conduct towards him was unprofessional
- The Ombudsman cannot investigate whether social workers are meeting their professional standards of conduct. Complaints of this nature should be referred to the social workers’ professional body, Social Work England.
Investigator’s decision on behalf of the Ombudsman
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman