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West Northamptonshire Council (21 005 839)

Category : Children's care services > Child protection

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 30 Mar 2022

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Ms X complained the Council appointed a social worker to work with her and her family who was unprofessional and caused her and her family distress. She also complained the Council failed to include her children’s views in its decision making and did not act on her complaints regarding her children’s foster care. She said this caused her and her family emotional distress. There was fault when the Council significantly delayed escalating Ms X’s complaint. The Council has agreed to issue Ms X with an apology and provide a £150 goodwill award. It should also remind its staff of the importance of keeping to required timescales. There was no fault found with the Council’s actions regarding its safeguarding of Ms X and her family.

The complaint

  1. Ms X complained the Council:
      1. sent a social worker to her home who was abusive and communicated poorly;
      2. failed to include her children’s views in its decision making;
      3. told her she was lying about reports of abuse made by her children whilst they were in foster care; and
      4. improperly carried out a psychological assessment.
  2. She said this caused her and her family distress and caused her to lose trust in the Council’s ability to safeguard her family.

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What I have investigated

  1. I have investigated complaint points a) - b). I have not investigated complaint points c) and d) for reasons explained at paragraph 43.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. 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/care provider has done. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26B and 34D, as amended)
  2. 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)
  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 have made enquiries of the Council and considered the information it provided. This included the Council’s complaints chronology, the complaints correspondence, statutory visit records, Y and S’s care notes and IO report.
  2. I have sent the draft decision to Ms X and the Council. I did not receive any comments before I made the final decision.

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What I found

Law

  1. The Children Act 1989 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.
  2. Anyone with concerns for a child’s welfare should make a referral to the local authority children’s social care.
  3. When a council receives a referral about a child who may be at risk, it should make initial enquiries of agencies involved with the child and family and assesses the information. The Council has 45 working days to complete this assessment. An assessment might decide no further action is required, that the child is in need or the child needs protection.
  4. Where the initial assessment shows a child is suffering or is likely to suffer significant harm, the council should hold a strategy discussion or meeting. The Council may decide to carry out enquiries in line with section 47 of the Children Act 1989.
  5. “Working together to safeguard children 2018," 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.
  6. Social workers have a statutory duty to 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.

Complaints procedure and process

  1. The Council should investigate and respond to a complaint at Stage 1 of the statutory complaints procedure within 10 to 20 working days.
  2. The Council should investigate and respond to a complaint at Stage 2 within 25 to 65 working days. The investigation should be carried out by an Investigating Officer.
  3. A review panel should consider the complaint and provide a written response within 20 working days at Stage 3.

What happened

  1. Ms X has five children aged between 1 and 10 years of age. The Council became involved with Ms X and her family in 2016 when it received referrals from the children’s school indicating they were at risk of significant harm.
  2. The Council decided to reduce Ms X’s contact with her children in 2017 and her two children Y and S were placed into care. Ms X began having supervised visits with the children at a contact centre.
  3. In care notes provided by the Council S indicated several times that he did not want contact with Ms X over facetime and Y and consistently stated she did not want Ms X to attend reviews regarding her care.
  4. In October 2020, Ms X complained that social workers sent to her home communicated poorly and regularly obstructed her from seeing S and Y. She disputed S and Y’s comments regarding contact with her and said the Council manipulated them. She further complained the Council was forcing her to wear a face mask even though she was exempt.
  5. The Council investigated the complaint at Stage 1 and issued a response on 10 November 2020. The Council detailed emails it had sent to her informing her of changes to contact dates and explained that the COVID-19 pandemic had impacted the contact centre’s resources. The Council said it regularly consulted Y and S to make sure it considered their views and it would continue to do so. The Council told Ms X she had not submitted medical evidence showing she was exempt from wearing a face mask but it had agreed that she could briefly take the mask off if she felt overwhelmed.
  6. Ms X was unhappy with the Council’s response and escalated the complaint to Stage 2. She further complained the Council failed to support her and were partly responsible for Y and S being removed from her care. She said one social worker behaved inappropriately towards her and complained that the Council carried out a psychological assessment on her when it should not have done.
  7. An Investigation Officer (IO) was assigned to her complaint and spoke with the Council and Ms X as part of the investigation. The IO was unable to interview the social workers she had complained about as they no longer worked for the Council. The Council issued its Stage 2 complaints response on 5 March 2020.
  8. The Council did not uphold the following complaint points:
    • Ms X’s complaint regarding the children being removed from her care, as it had judged that this was in the best interests of the children;
    • late contact sessions with the children as it had communicated changes in schedule with Ms X in good time;
    • failing to provide appropriate support and advice regarding Ms X’s parenting as it had offered her support and numerous interventions to prevent the children’s removal.
  9. The Council returned no finding on:
    • the matter of the social worker’s conduct as she no longer worked for the Council. The Council did confirm there were case files detailing communication between the social worker and Ms X indicating they had been consistently in contact.
  10. The Council said it upheld the IO’s findings.
  11. Ms X remained unhappy with the Council’s response and escalated her complaint to Stage 3. The Council says it told Ms X on 2 April 2020 it was temporarily suspending her complaint whilst it dealt with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Council wrote to Ms X on 8 June 2020 to discuss holding a review panel virtually. Ms X indicated she was happy to attend virtually but the Council experienced several staff members taking a leave of absence and this caused a delay.
  12. Ms X attended a panel on 13 May 2021 to question why most of her complaints were not upheld. On 4 June 2021, the Council sent Ms X its Stage 3 panel findings. The Panel upheld the IO’s findings.
  13. Ms X brought her complaint to the Ombudsman as she remained unhappy with the Council’s response.
  14. In response to the Ombudsman’s enquiries the Council confirmed none of the social workers Ms X has complained about work with the Council so they were unable to interview them. The Council advised that all social workers are registered by Social Work England and it had not found evidence or received any reports of inappropriate behaviour demonstrated by any of the workers aside from some occasional delays in communicating with Ms X. The Council has provided notes from statutory visits with Y and S taken by the social workers in support of its comments.

Findings

The Council’s complaint handing

  1. The Council’s process requires it acknowledge, investigate, and respond to complaints within specific timescales. The Council has conceded it significantly delayed responding to Ms X’s complaints and it did not meet these timescales. This is fault. Whilst I understand the COVID-19 pandemic is partly responsible for the delay and I can see the Council kept Ms X updated, I consider the delay is still excessive. This part of the complaint is likely to have contributed towards the breakdown in trust and communication between Ms X and the Council.

The Social worker’s conduct

  1. Ms X has said that the Council sent social workers to her home who behaved inappropriately and did not communicate with her. The social worker’s role is to carry out enquiries and to ensure the safety and wellbeing of a child thought to be at risk of harm. The Council has supplied extensive case files and details of the contact shared during statutory visits. The notes show consistent concerns expressed by different social workers and detailed impressions of the children and their wellbeing. I can see there have been occasions where the Council has had to reschedule contact visits, but I can also see the Council has given Ms X notice of these changes in good time. Having reviewed this information, I have not found evidence of any fault on the Council’s behalf.

The children’s views

  1. Ms X has complained the Council attributed false views to Y and S, which has influenced their desire to see her. The Council is required by the guidance to consider the children’s views and allow them to have a voice in decisions made about their care. I have reviewed the care files and chronology for each child and I am satisfied the Council has acted in line with what we would expect. Y and S’s views have been recorded thoroughly and in detail. There is no fault in the Council’s actions.

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Agreed action

  1. Within three months of the date of my final decision, the Council has agreed to provide Ms X with an apology and a £150 goodwill award in recognition of the injustice she experienced due to the significant delay in escalating her complaint.
  2. Within three months of the date of my final decision, the Council has agreed to issue a notice to its staff reminding them of the importance of keeping to the required timescales when complaint handling.

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Final decision

  1. The Council was at fault for delaying progressing Ms X’s complaint. I have recommended a remedy for the injustice caused by this and the Council has agreed to it. I have completed the investigation.

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Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate

  1. I have not investigated point c) as it relates to events that took place in 2017 and I can see no good reason to investigate a complaint that relates to actions which took place that long ago. In any event, the Council has investigated this complaint point and did not find evidence substantiating this point. It is unlikely I could add anything significant to the Council’s prior investigation.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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