Decision : Not upheld
Decision date : 30 Mar 2022
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: We have discontinued our investigation of this complaint, about the Council’s decision to remove two children from a foster care placement. This is because the Council has investigated the complaint thoroughly under its own procedure, and we are satisfied there is nothing of substance we could add to its conclusions.
- I will refer to the complainant as Mrs C.
- Mrs C says the Council removed, at short notice, two children from her care, after a foster placement lasting more than two years, and has not properly investigated her complaint about this matter, which included that:
- the Council had failed to provide the support she needed to maintain the placement;
- made unfounded allegations about her ability to provide care; and
- did not properly consider the impact on the children’s well-being by removing them.
- Mrs C says the social workers involved in the case should be struck off.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- The Ombudsman investigates complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’, which we call ‘fault’. We must also consider whether any fault has had an adverse impact on the person making the complaint, which we call ‘injustice’.
- 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)
- We provide a free service, but must use public money carefully. We do not start or may decide not to continue with an investigation if we decide:
- we could not add to any previous investigation by the organisation;
- further investigation would not lead to a different outcome; or
- we cannot achieve the outcome someone wants.
(Local Government Act 1974, section 24A(6))
How I considered this complaint
- I reviewed Mrs C’s complaint to the Council at each of three stages, including the series of evidential ‘exhibits’ she provided to support her stage 2 complaint. I also reviewed the Council’s response at each stage of the complaint, including the full report of the independent stage 2 investigating officer (IO).
- I also shared a draft copy of this decision with each party for their comments.
What I found
- Mrs C and her partner are registered foster carers for the Council. In 2018, they accepted the placement of two sisters, who had been removed from the care of their mother because of exposure to domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse.
- In 2021, the Council decided to remove the sisters from Mrs C and her partner’s care, and place them with different foster carers, giving only three days’ notice.
- Mrs C raised a formal complaint with the Council, escalating it to stage 2 of the Council’s procedure after being dissatisfied with the with the response. The Council decided to ask an independent IO to investigate and provide a stage 2 report.
- The IO upheld some aspects of Mrs C’s complaint, and made other independent criticisms of the Council, but did not uphold the main substance of the complaint. He considered the evidence showed the Council had, for the most part, provided the requisite support to Mrs C and her partner, had considered the appropriateness of the placement properly, had made a reasoned decision to remove the children, and had given cogent reasons for doing so at short notice.
- The Council wrote to Mrs C to provide a copy of the completed report, and explained it accepted all of the IO’s findings and would implement changes and improvements to address his criticisms.
- Mrs C then escalated her complaint to stage 3. In responding, the Council explained its purpose was now to review the administration of the stage 2 investigation. It said the IO was a very experienced investigator, had worked with the Council on similar cases in the past, and had upheld complaints against the Council on several occasions, demonstrating his independence. The Council said it had now completed its consideration of Mrs C’s complaint and referred her to the Ombudsman if she wished to pursue the matter further.
- Mrs C complained to the Ombudsman on 27 October 2021.
- Having reviewed the full detail of the Council’s investigation, including Mrs C’s complaints, submitted evidence, and the Council’s findings at each stage, I do not consider this is a matter the Ombudsman should now investigate.
- I will first note that, although Mrs C’s complaint did not qualify to be addressed under the children’s statutory complaints procedure, the Council chose to deal with it in a similar way, by bringing in an independent IO to conduct the stage 2 investigation. This was not a legal requirement and so it is positive to see. I consider this demonstrates the seriousness with which the Council took Mrs C’s complaint.
- Mrs C complains the IO’s report was deficient, that he was not “truly independent”, did not “fact check” and simply accepted the evidence provided by the Council, and did not give Mrs C or her partner the opportunity to rebut this.
- I do not agree. The IO conducted a very extensive series of interviews as part of his investigation process, including with both Mrs C and her partner, and with all relevant Council officers and third parties involved in the case. He set out each of Mrs C’s complaints and the relevant evidence, provided by both sides, and gave detailed reasons for his decision to either uphold or not uphold each complaint.
- I note, in particular, that some of the IO’s criticisms did not flow from Mrs C’s complaints, but from observations he had made independently – for example, he criticised the Council for not considering Mrs C’s suitability as a foster carer after she had terminated a previous placement without notice. It is difficult to consolidate this with Mrs C’s view the investigator was not properly independent.
- I note also the Council accepted the IO’s criticisms, and explained to Mrs C what steps it was taking to improve its service and procedures in this respect. This is precisely what we would expect to see in such circumstances.
- I acknowledge Mrs C does not agree with the findings; and this, of course, is her prerogative. However, the Ombudsman’s role is to review the Council’s administration of its functions. We cannot make substantive decisions on the Council’s behalf, and we do not provide a route of appeal against contested decisions.
- This is not to say I dismiss Mrs C’s view, or her version of events, but simply that these do not provide evidence of administrative fault on which I could uphold her complaint. Rather, the evidence shows the Council followed the appropriate procedure in investigating her complaint, and that the investigation took into account all relevant evidence and information, and provided clear and cogent reasons for its findings.
- This being the case, there are no grounds on which are likely to be able to criticise the Council, and no reason to believe further investigation by the Ombudsman will result in a substantially different outcome to this complaint. Under these circumstances, an investigation by the Ombudsman is not appropriate.
- I will also add that we have no power to recommend or require the striking off of social workers, and so this is not something we could achieve even if we did investigate.
- I have discontinued my investigation.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman