East Sussex County Council (21 004 678)

Category : Children's care services > Child protection

Decision : Not upheld

Decision date : 27 Mar 2022

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr W complains about the way the Council managed a child protection matter relating to his two children. Primarily, Mr W says his views were not taken seriously and that he was not kept properly informed about the Council’s involvement with him and his family. He also says the Council’s lead social worker was unsupportive of him and, at times, unprofessional. We have not identified any fault by the Council with respect to its involvement with Mr W’s family. Further, we also have no jurisdiction to investigate some of the issues raised by Mr W. The complaint is not upheld.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, who I refer to as Mr W, complains about poor conduct and service failure by the Council in undertaking a child protection investigation relating to his two children. Specifically, Mr W alleges the following:
      1. The Council failed take seriously his concerns relating to his ex-wife’s new partner (Mr X) who interacted with his two children (Child Y and Z).
      2. The Council inappropriately shared allegations of domestic abuse against Mr W relating to his ex-wife (Ms B) with a football club where he volunteers.
      3. The Council failed to notify him of the outcome of Children’s Services involvement with him and his family.
      4. The Council’s lead social worker was, at times, inappropriate and unprofessional in her language and approach with him.
      5. The Council’s lead social worker failed to provide adequate support to him, answer his questions and address concerns raised.
      6. There were no set rules with respect to his children being dropped off and collected during visits with him.
  2. Mr W says this matter has adversely impacted on his wellbeing and career. He also says the alleged failings have meant he has lost contact with Child Y which has caused him extreme hardship, stress and anxiety. As a desired outcome, he wants the case to be reviewed by an independent social worker. He also wants an apology from the Council for the way he has been treated.

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What I have investigated

  1. I have investigated outcomes (a), (c), (d) and (e). I will not however investigate outcomes (b) or (f) because these issues were subject to private family law proceedings in the Family Court in October 2020. I therefore do not have the legal jurisdiction to investigate these parts of the complaint (see Paragraph 5).

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. The Local Government Act 1974 sets out our powers but also imposes restrictions on what we can investigate.
  2. We cannot investigate a complaint about what happened in court. (Local Government Act 1974, Schedule 5/5A, paragraph 1/3, as amended).
  3. 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).
  4. 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 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).
  5. We cannot question a council’s decision 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).

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I have read Mr W’s complaint to the Ombudsman and Council. I have also had regard to the responses of the Council, supporting documents and applicable legislation and policy. I invited both Mr W and the Council to comment on a draft of my decision. All comments received were fully considered before a final decision was made.

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What I found

Background and legislative framework

The Children Act 1989

  1. The Children Act 1989 (the 1989 Act) 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. Section 17 of the 1989 Act imposes a general duty on local authorities to safeguard and promote the welfare of “children in need” in their area.
  2. Sections 17(10) and (11) of the 1989 Act defines a ‘Child in Need’ (CIN) as a child who is unlikely to achieve or maintain a reasonable level of health or development, or whose health and development is likely to be significantly or further impaired, without the provision of services; or a child who is disabled. Should a local authority consider a child is in need, it can implement a CIN Plan.

Statutory guidance

  1. ‘Working Together to Safeguard Children’ July 2018 (‘Working Together 2018’). This is statutory guidance for local authorities and other agencies on how they should work together to assess children’s needs and make arrangements for promoting and safeguarding their welfare. It sets out the principles, processes and timescales for carrying out child protection investigations.

Strategy discussion

  1. Whenever there is reasonable cause to suspect that a child is suffering or is likely to suffer significant harm, there should be a strategy discussion involving local authority children’s social care (including the residential or fostering service, if the child is looked-after), the police, health and other bodies such as the referring agency. This might take the form of a multi-agency meeting or phone calls and more than one discussion may be necessary. A strategy discussion can take place following a referral or at any other time, including during the assessment process and when new information is received on an already open case. A strategy discussion should inform whether the local authority should initiate a Section 47 enquiry in accordance with the 1989 Act (s47 enquiries).
  2. The timescale for the assessment to reach a decision on next steps should be based upon the needs of the individual child and no longer than 45 working days from the point of referral into local authority children’s social care.

Section 47 enquiry

  1. The Council is responsible for ensuring s47 enquiries are carried out by undertaking or continuing an assessment. Local authority social workers have a statutory duty to lead assessments under section 47 of the 1989 Act. In some cases, children’s services will carry out single agency enquiries. In cases where a criminal prosecution is being considered, there will be joint enquiries with the police. If the information gathered under section 47 substantiates concerns and 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.

Child protection conference

  1. Following s47 enquiries, an initial child protection conference (ICPC) brings together family members (and the child where appropriate), with the supporters, advocates and practitioners most involved with the child and family, to make decisions about the child’s future safety, health and development. If concerns relate to an unborn child, consideration should be given as to whether to hold a child protection conference prior to the child’s birth. In effect, the CPC decides what action is needed to safeguard the child. This may include making a recommendation that the child should be subject to a Child Protection Plan. After the ICPC, 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.
  2. Core Group meetings are to check how the Child Protection Plan is working and to make changes to it, if changes will help the child. If the local authorities’ Core Group thinks the Child Protection Plan is not working, they might hold the Child Protection Case Conference Review early.

Chronology of events

  1. In mid-2020, Ms B reported allegations of historical physical and emotional abuse perpetrated by Mr W. As Mr W and Ms B share two children together, this resulted in the Council initiating a strategy discussion. The family was allocated a social worker to provide support (Social Worker A).
  2. Prior to Social Worker A’s involvement with the family, Mr W took one of his children (Child Y) for a paternity test due to concerns he held about Child Y not being his biological son. The results confirmed that Child Y was not Mr W’s biological child. This resulted in a conversation around how best to manage explaining the news to Child Y. The Council felt that due to the emotional strain Child Y was currently under, this may increase his vulnerabilities and risk-taking behaviours. Mr W was therefore advised not to inform Child Y at that stage.
  3. A month later, the Council held its strategy discussion and heard from Ms B. She reported she had been the victim of prolonged abuse by Mr W, of which their children will have been exposed to over their lifetimes. Further, Ms B explained she was fearful of repercussions from Mr W for taking necessary steps to protect herself and the children. The Council also identified Ms B was in a relationship with a new partner (Mr X) and highlighted concerns regarding control and abuse. The Council therefore decided to commence s47 enquiries in respect of any risk to the children presented by Mr W. However, it also decided to commence a separate strategy discussion in respect of any risk presented by Mr X.
  4. In August 2020, the Council completed its s47 enquiries. The Council gathered information it said raised concerns about domestic abuse in Mr W and Ms B’s relationship and the impact this has had on their two children. The outcome was for the Council to carry out an assessment under s17 of the Act to determine whether Mr W and Ms B’s children required support as ‘Children in Need’.
  5. During this time, Mr W had raised serious concerns with Social Worker A with respect to Child Y and Z’s contact with Mr X. However, data protection procedures and legislation prevented personal information relating to Mr X from being shared with Mr W who was therefore not kept informed.
  6. The Council subsequently concluded Mr W and Ms B’s two children be offered support as ‘Children in Need’ (CIN). It decided to provide social work support to ensure the children were safeguarded from the impact of domestic abuse.
  7. In October 2020, the Council’s social worker supporting Mr W and Ms B undertook a risk assessment with respect to Mr X. It completed a report and incorporated the recommendations into Child Y and Z’s CIN Plans. The recommendations were also shared with Mr W.
  8. In November 2020, the Council was made aware of a violent incident in Ms B’s home perpetrated by Mr X where the police became involved. During this incident, Mr X told Child Y in anger that Mr W was not his biological father. Ms B was advised by the Council to not have any further contact with Mr X.
  9. In addition, it was at this time the case was co-worked by another social worker (Social Worker B) due to Mr W no longer wishing to work with Social Worker A. Following this, Social Worker B was responsible for contact with Mr W.
  10. In mid-December 2020, the Council conducted further s47 enquiries. It heard significant concerns relating to Child Y and Child Z’s emotional welfare as a result of witnessing controlling and coercive behaviour perpetrated towards Ms B by both Mr W and Mr X. It also noted significant concerns with respect to Child Y being exposed to Mr X’s violent and aggressive behaviour which appears to have been fuelled by excessive alcohol use. The Council agreed the threshold to hold an ICPC had been met to explore whether Child Y and Z were experiencing or at risk of significant harm.
  11. In late December 2020, the Council held an ICPC and it was concluded that Child Y and Z had suffered significant harm due to their experiences of domestic abuse and violence. It also noted that both children were under extreme pressure due to the dispute between Mr W and Ms B who were currently engaged in legal proceedings relating to contact arrangements. Both Child Y and Z were therefore made subject to Child Protection Plans under the category of emotional abuse.
  12. In March 2021, the Council held a review CPC. It noted Ms B had maintained her separation from Mr X, though considered there had been no improvement between Mr W and Ms B. In brief, the Council had not determined a reduced risk of emotional harm to Child Y and Z and therefore decided to maintain the Child Protection Plans in place at the time.
  13. In July 2021, the Could undertook a further review CPC and noted an improved situation with respect to Mr W and Ms B’s engagement with each other. Both parents also expressed a commitment to comply with the Council’s recommendations to ensure benefits for Child Y and Z. The Council therefore decided to end Child Y and Z’s Child Protection Plans. Further, new CIN Plans were agreed, as well as support meetings and for each parent on separate dates.
  14. In October 2021, the Council’s Children’s Services team closed its case with Child Y and Z and the wider family. The Council said that letters were sent to Mr W and Ms B notifying them of the end its involvement.

My assessment

The Ombudsman’s jurisdiction

  1. By law, I cannot investigate any complaint which has been subject to legal proceedings in a court of law. Further, I cannot investigate any matter which is materially connected to those proceedings. Mr W has raised complaints relating to contact arrangements with his children which was facilitated by the Council. He also says the Council wrongly notified his football club of domestic abuse allegations when these were unfounded. However, these issues were subject to private family law proceedings in the Family Court in October 2020. I therefore have no jurisdiction to investigate these parts of the complaint (see Paragraph 5).

Consideration of concerns raised

  1. In summary, Mr W held serious concerns relating to the welfare of his children and the risks presented by Mr X. On a number of occasions, Mr W expressed these concerns to the Council. In Mr W’s view, the Council failed to take these concerns seriously and take action to alleviate the risk to Child Y and Z.
  2. I have reviewed the recorded events in this case and the evidence does not support Mr W’s view. Rather, the documentary evidence shows the Council was in full agreement with Mr W’s concerns, as well as the potential for risk. This is well documented in the notes of the strategy discussion, outcome of s47 enquiries and the ICPC. Further, the Council conducted a separate inquiry process and risk assessment with respect to Mr X. It was due to the assessment of risks concerning both Mr W and Mr X which resulted in a s17 family assessment being undertaken and a CPC being convened. Both of these ultimately informed Child Y and Z being made subject to a Child Protection Plan.
  3. For these reasons, I do not accept that Mr W’s concerns were not taken seriously by the Council. I do however recognise that Mr W would not have been in a position to judge whether the Council was taking appropriate action in respect of his concerns. This is because Mr W would not have been provided with any assessment made by the Council with respect to Mr X. Ultimately, Mr X is entitled to have his personal information protected and this cannot be disclosed for reasons of data protection legislation.
  4. In addition, Mr W is dissatisfied the Council did not want to allow him to explain to Child Y that he was not the child’s biological father. Mr W alleges the Council threatened to make his children subject to Child Protection Plans in the event he disclosed this news to Child Y. In brief, Mr W feels this was an abuse of the Council’s role in supporting both him and his family.
  5. Fundamentally, the role of the Council in child protection cases is to promote the welfare of the child (also known as the welfare or paramountcy principle). This is set out under s17 of the Children Act 1989. I have reviewed the Council’s assessment of Mr W’s family circumstances, including the impact on both Child Y and Z. The evidence shows a legitimate concern for the emotional stability and wellbeing of the children. Moreover, the evidence shows a clear connect between the Council’s strong advice to Mr W not to reveal his parental biological status to Child Y, with the need to promote the welfare of the children. The Council’s officers are entitled use their professional judgement and I cannot question the merits of its decision absent fault. The decision to advise Mr W against his proposed course of action was to give effect to its legal duty to promote the welfare of Child Y and Z. I have not identified any fault in this respect.
  6. With respect to Mr W’s allegation that Council social workers warned it would make his children subject to Child Protection Plans should he reveal his parental biological status, I made formal enquiries on this matter. I note that at this time, the Council felt that should Child Y learn the result of the paternity test, this may increase his vulnerabilities and risk-taking behaviour. Mr W was also advised at this time about the possibility of the Council convening a strategy meeting with the possibility of escalating the case to an ICPC. I have not identified any evidence of a warning by the Council to Mr W which represents an abuse of process. I consider Mr W was likely warned of the potential consequences and impact the news could have on Child Y, as well as what the Council would need to consider so to give effect to its obligations. The Council is entitled and encouraged to make these wider considerations and so I do not find it was at fault in this regard.
  7. I fully recognise and symphaise with Mr W’s feelings and position with respect to Mr X informing Child Y that Mr W was not his biological child. However, I cannot attribute fault to the Council for Mr X’s independent and grossly irresponsible actions. This was a deeply regrettable event, but the evidence suggests the Council was seeking to safeguard Child Y and I cannot find fault with its actions.

Social worker conduct and support

  1. During the course of the Council’s involvement with Mr W’s family, he has raised concerns relating to the conduct and professionalism of Social Worker A. By way of summary, Social Worker A became involved in the case in September 2020 when it was transferred from the Council’s Duty and Assessment Team to the Youth Support Team. In November 2020, the relationship between Mr W and Social Worker A broke down which led to the case being co-worked. Social Worker A remained as the lead social worker and continued to visit Child Y and Z while in Ms B’s care. Social Worker B worked exclusively with Mr W for the purposes of maintaining contact and undertaking risk assessments.
  2. Importantly, I note many of the allegations Mr W has made against Social Worker A relate to issues which our outside of our legal jurisdiction. In particular, Mr W has complained Social Worker A unjustifiably informed a football club where he undertakings a voluntary coaching role about allegations of domestic abuse. Mr W says this resulted in him being suspended. Further, Mr W has recalled misconduct by Social Worker A relating to contact arrangements between him and Child Y and Z. As outlined at Paragraph 32, these issues were materially connected to private family law proceedings initiated by Mr W. I have no jurisdiction to investigate them, including Social Worker A’s involvement.
  3. I have received a written statement from Social Worker A who explained part of her role was to challenge Mr W in relation to the allegations made against him by Ms B, as well as comments made by Child Y. Social Worker A said this was necessary in order to gain information from Mr W in order to give effect to the Council’s duty to promote the welfare of Child Y and Z. The perspective of Social Worker A was that Mr W was defensive to her enquiries which led to challenges working with him. Further, Social Worker A gave examples of Mr W being rude and aggressive to her during the course of her engagement with him.
  4. On the other hand, Mr W has explained that Social Worker A was generally unsupportive of him and failed to take his concerns in relation to Mr X seriously. Specifically, Mr W references an incident where his concerns resulted in a response from Social Worker A that she "does not have time for tit for tat messages”. This allegation is strenuously denied by Social Worker A and I have not been provided any evidence from Mr W that this happened. There is a clear conflict of accounts by Mr W and Social Worker A. I have not identified any fault by the Council in relation to this particular part of the complaint.
  5. In addition, Mr W told me that during a meeting at Child Y and Z’s school, Social Worker A caused him to feel uncomfortable and embarrassed. Mr W explained that he questioned Social Worker A why he had not been promptly notified of the violent incident in November 2020 involving Mr X. In short, Mr W said that Social Worker A told him he would need to wait for Social Worker B to explain the situation due to Mr W not wanting to work with her. It is Mr W’s view that this was a personal and inappropriate comment to be had at a school meeting. In my view, this alleged comment was relevant to the circumstances and does not constitute fault by the Council. Further, I do not accept that Mr W suffered serious loss, harm or distress (an injustice) by reason of the allegation. I am only required to accept complaints where the complainant has suffered an injustice.
  6. With respect to Mr W not being informed about significant events concerning Child Y and Z, I have considered these below. However, insofar at the complaint relates to Social Worker A’s involvement, she no longer worked with Mr W on his request. Any and all communications therefore should have come from Social Worker B. In my view, I cannot hold Social Worker A responsible for failing to work with Mr W and provide him updates when he requested a change in social worker on the basis of the relationship having sufficiently broken down.

Information sharing

  1. I also note that Mr W alleges there has been a failure of communication by the Council’s officers to keep him well informed. Specifically, I note he references poor contact by Council officers with regards to contact arrangement. However, I cannot investigate this part of the complaint due to a lack of jurisdiction in this regard (see Paragraph 32). For completeness however, I made a formal request for evidence from the Council relating to the key documents in the child protection process, when they were produced and subsequently shared with Mr W. I also asked the Council to detail all key meetings held with Mr W. These requests were made to inform a view about whether Mr W had been sufficiently involved by the Council in the process in accordance with the Working Together guidance.
  2. From my review of the case, Mr W was provided with a report following the Council’s s47 enquiries. He was also sent an invitation to attend the ICPC in December 2020, as well as a Family Assessment report to be discussed at the conference meeting. Subsequent to this, I note Mr W was sent the ICPC outcome in late December 2020 and received further invitations to attend CPC reviews, including the written outcome of these. I am satisfied Mr W has been kept informed and included in the child protection process and in a manner which is consistent with the Working Together guidance. In terms of other contact, I have seen a detailed chronology of all contacts the Council has held with Mr W. These have taken the form of family support meetings, home visits and Core Group meetings. A combination of these contacts with Mr W occurred 20 times between August 2020 and September 2021. I am satisfied the evidence demonstrates the Council maintained regular contact with Mr W. I have not identified any fault.
  3. Separately, I recognise Mr W has raised serious concerns relating to the Council notifying him about incidents involving his children. In particular, Mr W says he was not promptly informed about the incident involving Mr X in November 2020 which he says comprised his children’s safety and wellbeing. Mr W explained he was not told about the incident until two days after the event. The Council deny any delay in notifying Mr W of the November 2020 incident, advising further Social Worker B had multiple contacts with Mr W on this issue when it happened. In any event, I do not consider Mr W suffered serious loss, harm or distress by reason of a two day delay by the Council. Moreover, the Council’s social workers have busy schedules across various priorities and are not responsible for notifying relevant parties about events as they are happening. I believe the Council notified Mr W of the incident when it was reasonably practical to do so.
  4. In addition, Mr W also says the Council failed to promptly notify him about Child Y displaying challenging behaviours and being involved with the police. He adds he was not informed about this issue until the ICPC. However, the evidence suggests Mr W was not notified because the Council was not made aware of the issue until the ICPC. I cannot therefore find fault by the Council.

Failure to notify of outcome

  1. Further, Mr W has complained the Council failed to notify him about the outcome of Children’s Services involvement with his family. In response, the Council has said Social Worker B spoke with Mr W in mid-October 2021 that the case would be closed following completion of a court ordered welfare report. It says this was sent to Mr W the same day and that a closure letter was subsequently sent to Mr W in late October 2021. I have reviewed the closure letter which I do consider notifies Mr W about the end in the Council’s involvement with him and his family. I have not found any evidence of fault by the Council in communicating with Mr W around this issue.

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Final decision

  1. I have not identified any fault by the Council and so the complaint in not upheld. I am satisfied the Council did give consideration to and acted on Mr W’s concerns relating to the welfare of his children. The evidence also shows the Council maintained effective communication with Mr W and in accordance with statutory guidance. I have not identified any fault by the Council, including with respect to the conduct and professionalism of the social workers involved in the case.

Investigator’s decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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