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Sheffield City Council (21 009 397)

Category : Children's care services > Child protection

Decision : Not upheld

Decision date : 08 Jun 2022

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Miss X complained about the way the Council handled the child protection process for her daughter, Y, which Miss X said caused significant distress for her and meant Y was exposed to further harm. The Council was not at fault.

The complaint

  1. Miss X complained about the lack of support from the Council when she asked for support with her daughter, Y, from 2015 to 2019.
  2. She also complained about the way the Council handled the child protection process for Y, which she thinks failed her. In particular, she said the Council:
    • did not investigate the initial disclosures;
    • failed to address the underlying issues, because it focussed on her rather than the external risks for Y;
    • treated the parents differently, demonstrating a gender bias against mothers, and failed to understand the impact of the coercive control she experienced in her relationship with Mr Z, the children’s father;
    • failed to handle her complaint properly; and
    • failed to respond to a subject access request (SAR).
  3. Miss X said the Council’s failings caused emotional distress to her, leading her to attempt suicide, and damaged her relationship with Y, who now lives with Mr Z. She also said the failings caused harm to Y, who was exposed to further risks due to the Council’s lack of action.

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What I have investigated

  1. I have investigated the complaints from January 2020 when a referral was made to children’s social care, that later led to the Council starting the child protection process. I have not investigated events before that, nor have I investigated the failure to respond to the SAR, for reasons I will set out at the end of this decision statement.

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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 Information Commissioner's Office considers complaints about freedom of information. Its decision notices may be appealed to the First Tier Tribunal (Information Rights). So where we receive complaints about freedom of information, we normally consider it reasonable to expect the person to refer the matter to the Information Commissioner.
  5. 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 considered:
    • the information Miss X provided and spoke to her about her complaint;
    • the information the Council provided in response to our enquiries; and
    • relevant law and guidance, as set out below.
  2. Miss X and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision and I considered their comments before making a final decision.

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What I found

Relevant law and guidance

Child in need

  1. Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 says councils must safeguard and promote the welfare of children in their area who are in need.
  2. A child is in need if:
  • they are unlikely to achieve or maintain a reasonable standard of health or development unless the council provides support;
  • their health or development is likely to be significantly impaired unless the council provides support; or
  • they are disabled.
  1. When a council assesses a child as being in need, it supports them through a child in need plan. This should set clear, measurable outcomes for the child and expectations for their parent. Councils should review child in need plans regularly.

Safeguarding: the duty to make enquiries

  1. Under section 47 of the Children Act 1989, where a council has reasonable cause to suspect that a child in their area is suffering or is likely to suffer significant harm, it has a duty to make such enquiries as it considers necessary to decide whether to take any action to safeguard or promote the child’s welfare. Such enquiries should be initiated where there are concerns about abuse or neglect.
  2. Councils should act decisively to protect children from abuse and neglect including starting care proceedings where existing interventions are insufficient.

Child protection

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Review Child Protection Conferences should be held within three months of the initial conference, and thereafter at maximum intervals of six months.
  5. The Child Protection Conference is a multi-agency body and is not in itself a body in the Ombudsman's jurisdiction.
  6. The Child Protection Conference plays an advisory role. But the final decision, for example whether to place a child on a Child Protection Plan or to discontinue a Plan, is the responsibility of the council. We would generally consider it appropriate for a council to follow the recommendations of the Child Protection Conference unless there was good reason not to.

Children and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS)

  1. CAMHS is a health service for children, and their families, who need support for mental health issues. CAMHS also carry out assessments for conditions such as autism.

Complaints handling

  1. The Council aims to complete the investigation of complaints within 28 days, following which it will send a written response confirming the outcome and explaining any actions it will take.
  2. If the complainant is unhappy with the response they can ask for a more senior manager to review the complaint. It aims to complete the review and respond in writing within 28 days of the request.

What happened

  1. Miss X and Mr Z have been separated for several years. They have two children, including a daughter, Y. Miss X said she sought support with Y’s behaviour in 2015 and again in 2019 but felt the Council’s response was unhelpful. In January 2020, Y disclosed her mother had physically chastised her and a referral was made to children’s social care.
  2. The Council made enquiries and identified some concerns. At a meeting in late February, it decided Y needed a child in need plan. The records show the key concerns at that stage were around:
    • the poor relationship between the parents and possible impact of this on the children; and
    • conflict between Miss X and Y, including incidents of physical chastisement of Y by Miss X and Y’s verbal aggression towards Miss X.
  3. The Council arranged support from its Multi Systemic Team (MST), which supports families to reduce and manage risks, and to build relationships. This support was provided from March 2020 until September 2020.
  4. The Council also made a referral to a Family Support conference to identify what support extended family could provide. There was a waiting list for this service but an initial meeting was held online on 9 April 2020. By that stage extended family were limited in the practical support they could offer due to COVID-19 restrictions.
  5. In May and June 2020, Miss X reported she was struggling to manage Y’s behaviour, which was escalating. Mr Z also reported concerns about Y’s behaviour. Both parents expressed frustration at what they felt was a lack of support from the Council.
  6. The Council held a strategy meeting with the professionals working with the family in early July at which they agreed to arrange an Initial Child Protection Conference (ICPC).
  7. The Council held the ICPC in July 2020. The minutes record concerns about:
    • the use of physical chastisement;
    • parents not communicating well and blaming each other for the children’s difficulties; and
    • Y’s vulnerability, including risks around the internet and social media, drug use, and the peer groups she was attracted to, and her anger management.
  8. The minutes also record Miss X was concerned that social care had taken power from her by asking her not to physically chastise Y, although she was legally allowed to do so, and that social care were fixated on that issue. She also said the Council’s approach had led to parental alienation. Both parents agreed that the lockdown due to COVID-19 had added considerable stress to the situation.
  9. The ICPC agreed a Child Protection Plan (CPP) was needed. Actions following the conference included:
    • exploring with Miss X the underlying issues causing conflict with Y and assisting her to manage conflict without using physical chastisement;
    • working with both parents to help them manage Y’s emotional and behavioural needs;
    • offering emotional support to Y;
    • continuing with MST support; and
    • arranging further support through family group conferences.
  10. Records show there was then a period where risks for Y appeared to reduce but by September 2020, when the Council held the Review Child Protection Conference (RCPC), there was evidence Y’s risky behaviours outside the home were increasing. The RCPC records:
    • the relationship between Y and Miss X had improved, but their remained concerns Mrs X might use physical chastisement in response to Y’s very challenging behaviour;
    • Y was challenging the reasonable boundaries her parents had put in place, and there were concerns about her risky behaviour outside the home, following the ending of the MST support;
    • Miss X said she wanted more individual support for Y. A referral had been made to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) and Y had agreed to support from the child sexual exploitation team; and
    • more family members were offering support following the family group conference.
  11. Records show that during October 2020:
    • Mr Z reported he was struggling with Y’s behaviour;
    • Mr Z also reported concerns about Miss X’s mental health, including thinking about suicide: and
    • there was an incident between Y and Miss X, in which the police were called.
  12. The Council held a further strategy discussion was held in early November 2020 to discuss these concerns, at which it decided to continue with the current CPP. The situation further deteriorated in November 2020:
    • Miss X asked for Y to be taken into care but was told there was no placement for her. Later an extended family member agreed to take Y for the night;
    • Miss X attempted suicide and it was arranged that Y would go to extended family for a short period to provide respite for both parents;
    • When Y was due to return from her grandparents, Miss X again asked for her to be taken into care. It was later agreed Y would stay with Mr Z but she returned to Miss X’s care in early January 2021. There was a further incident in mid January 2021 to which police were called.
  13. There was a further strategy meeting in January 2021 to discuss increasing concerns about Y’s behaviour, which included substance use, episodes where she was missing from home, and inappropriate contact with adult males in the community. Police and other agencies were actively involved, and support was being provided to Y through school and the child exploitation team.
  14. The RCPC in February 2021 noted:
    • Y’s risky behaviours had increased outside the home, including three episodes where Y was missing from home in the previous month;
    • there was a lot of conflict in the family home, especially between Y and Miss X, whose relationship was at risk of breakdown;
    • family members were becoming reluctant to care for Y and having open conversations about her going into care;
    • there was a lot of good support around Y with multi-agency working, which was a positive.
  15. There were further episodes where Y was missing from home in March and April 2021. In April 2021 Miss X complained. I have seen her email, which attaches a letter dated January 2021. The Council said it did not receive a complaint until April 2021. Miss X complained:
    • the ICPC report did not reflect the root causes of Y’s difficulties and was factually incorrect;
    • the involvement of social care had a detrimental effect on the situation, causing significant emotional stress to the family, and leading to her suicide attempt;
    • social workers wrongly told Y that Miss X had mental health issues and needed help; and
    • the Council was fixated on physical chastisement and had not taken into account Mr Z’s coercive control and attempts at parental alienation.
  16. The Council responded in mid July 2021. It said it:
    • could not identify any inaccuracies in the ICPC report or any references to officers discussing Miss X’s mental health with Y;
    • was aware of the difficult relationship with Mr Z and the possibility of parental alienation but considered Y’s behaviour was likely to be due to her lived experience in the care of her parents; and
    • did not support physical chastisement in any form and would always want parents to find alternatives. It also noted there was a fine line between physical chastisement and a criminal offence.
  17. There was a further RCPC in August 2021 at which it was agreed the CPP would remain in place. The record shows professionals, including the police, continued to be concerned about child sexual exploitation and that Y was minimising the risks, maintaining she was acting like a normal teenager.
  18. In the meantime, the Council met with Miss X to discuss her ongoing concerns and responded formerly to her at stage 2 of its process in mid August 2021.
  19. In September 2021 Y was assaulted. The police were involved and there was a further strategy meeting to discuss concerns about this. It was decided Y should remain on a CPP and the input of the child sexual exploitation team should continue. Also in September, Miss X complained to us.

My findings

  1. Miss X complained the Council did not properly investigate the initial disclosures and did not address the underlying issues causing Y’s behaviour. Instead, she said it focussed on Miss X’s parenting and her use of physical chastisement.
  2. The records show the initial referral to children’s social care concerned an incident of physical chastisement. It was therefore appropriate for the Council to explore that issue, which it did.
  3. At that stage, it had concerns about family relationships more generally and arranged support from MST, which provided support for the family from March to September 2020 and arranged a family group conference to explore the support they could access from extended family. As a result of that input, concerns about the risks to Y in the home reduced. However, by late September 2020, the risks posed by her behaviour outside the home had increased. In response the Council arranged additional individual support for Y and made a referral to CAMHS.
  4. Although the Council did address the issue of physical chastisement with Miss X in the early months of its involvement, and this was upsetting for Miss X who said she felt disempowered, the Council did not focus solely on that, and it did provide appropriate support for Y and for the family.
  5. Miss X said the Council treated Y’s parents differently with a gender bias against her. She also said the Council did not address with Mr Z the issues of coercive control and parental alienation.
  6. The extensive records I have seen do not support the view there was a gender bias. It is clear that both parents were struggling with Y’s behaviour at times and this had an impact on their mental health. The Council responded to reports from both parents and attempted to support both of them to parent Y. Whilst the records show Miss X raised concerns about coercive control and parental alienation, she does not appear to have provided details of her concerns (apart from saying Mr Z owed her money), and it remained the professional view of Council officers that Y’s behaviour was the result of her lived experience in the care of both parents.
  7. Whilst I appreciate the period under investigation was very stressful for Miss X, and that for much of that time the support provided did not appear to have a significant impact on Y’s challenging behaviour, I have not found evidence of fault by the Council.
  8. Miss X also complained about the Council’s handling of her complaint. She did not provide details. I am satisfied the Council responded to the concerns she raised, although there was a delay in responding to the complaint in April 2021, which was not formally responded to until July 2021. Although this is longer than I would expect to see, and is outside the Council’s target of 28 days, I do not consider this is sufficient to justify a formal finding of fault. In any case, I note the Council apologised for the delay in its complaint response, which is an appropriate remedy.

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Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation. I have not found fault.
  2. 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.

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Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate

  1. We would not usually investigate events more than 12 months before the person complained to us, unless there are good reasons to do so. Miss X complained in September 2021 about events from 2015. It is unclear why she did not complain about the Council’s lack of support earlier and there was no good reason to investigate that. I exercised discretion to investigate the period from January 2020, which was when the child protection process began.
  2. I have not investigated the complaint about the Council’s failure to respond to a subject access request. The Information Commissioner’s Officer is better placed to address that complaint.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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